By Mike Pomranz
Updated September 30, 2015
Credit: Kristoffer Tripplaar / Alamy

Is selling products produced through prison labor helping to rehabilitate criminals or simply exploiting cheap labor? And either way, does it fit the Whole Foods ethos? The national grocery giant decided to bow to concerns over such programs and announced that the company would stop selling prisoner-made products by April 2016, if not sooner.

Since at least 2011, Whole Foods has been selling tilapia, trout and goat cheese produced through Colorado Correctional Industries, part of Colorado’s department of corrections, and provided to the grocery chain through CCI’s partners. Clearly, the amount paid to inmates is unfair, especially for products that will be supplied to the private market: These workers make as little 74 cents to just $4 a day, program director Dennis Dunsmoor told the Associated Press. However, CCI’s own statistics claim that the program helps prepare prisoners for the real world, boosting participants’ chances of staying out of jail from 62 percent (the national average) to 80 percent.

Michael Allen, a prison reform advocate, organized a protest against Whole Foods as recently as this past weekend. “They say they care about the community, but they're enhancing their profit off of poor people,” he told the AP, criticizing the brand’s previous stance.

Meanwhile, Whole Foods tried to spin their decision to the other side of the argument, despite ultimately doing away with the products. According to spokesman Michael Silverman, the company was trying to “help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society.”

What’s unclear is why it might take half a year to get the products off store shelves. Maybe they’re still waiting for some of that prison cheese to age?